The Transportation Security Administration has said it is unlikely to detect what an FBI report has described as "the greatest potential incendiary threat to aviation," and the agency is not adequately preparing its staff to manage the threat, The Intercept
A classified document says that thermite — a mixture of rust and aluminum powder — could be used against commercial air flights.
"The ignition of a thermite-based incendiary device on an aircraft at altitude could result in catastrophic damage and the death of every person onboard," a secret advisory said, according to The Intercept.
The agency said that security screening procedures are not likely to identify a thermite-based device, and the extinguishers carried on aircraft would make the attack worse, creating an explosive reaction with toxic fumes.
A thermite device would "produce toxic gasses, which can act as nerve poison, as well as a thick black smoke that will significantly inhibit any potential for in-flight safety officers to address the burn," the document said, according to The Intercept.
An FBI document said that thermite devices "spew molton metal and hot gasses" and can potentially "burn through steel and every other material" on an aircraft, according to The Intercept.
Air marshals are being advised to "recognize a thermite ignition," but the TSA has not offered any training or guidance on how to do so, sources told The Intercept.
"We're supposed to brief our [federal air marshals] to identify a thermite ignition — but they tell us nothing," a TSA official told The Intercept. "So our guys are Googling, 'What does thermite look like? How do you extinguish thermite fires?'
"This is not at all helpful."
A number of aviation officials also confirmed that they had been told about the threat but had not been given information or training on how to identify a thermite ignition.
"They say to identify something we don't know how to identify and say there is nothing we can do," a federal air marshal said. "So basically, we hope it's placed somewhere it does minimal damage, but basically we're [screwed]."
Aviation security officials criticized the agency for flooding employees with intelligence from other agencies as a way to cover itself in the event of a serious incident, but the agency has said that it prioritizes information sharing.
"As a general matter, DHS, the FBI and other partners in aviation security regularly share information on potential threats affecting air travel safety," S.Y. Lee, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, told The Intercept. "This information is shared in a timely and consistent fashion. When relevant and actionable information is developed, we work to identify countermeasures to mitigate the threat."
Lee also insisted that the agency had developed a rigorous security system.
"Today, all air travelers are subject to a robust security system that employs multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen, including: intelligence gathering and analysis, cross-checking passenger manifests against watchlists, thorough screening at checkpoints, random canine team screening at airports, reinforced cockpit doors, Federal Air Marshals, armed pilots and a vigilant public.
"In combination, these layers provide enhanced security creating a much stronger and protected transportation system for the traveling public. TSA continually assesses and evaluates the current threat environment and will adjust security measures as necessary to ensure the highest levels of aviation security without unnecessary disruption to travelers."
The FBI has said that there is no indication that terrorists have a specific interest in using thermite to target aircraft and potential attackers tend to have interest in other types of incendiary materials.
One expert questioned the likelihood that a thermite device would slip through security, given that a possible terrorist would need to smuggle an igniter on board while carrying a pound of solid material.
"You've got to get a pound of something that is a really thick mass through security without anyone noticing," Jimmie Oxley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, told The Intercept. "I find that hard to believe."
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